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Miami Dolphins’2018 Off-Season Road Map

Travis Wingfield

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“It feels right for us right now,” Gase said. “I feel like we’re in a good place. It feels like we’ve got the type of people all working in the same direction and working toward the same goal.”

An exercise as old as time, Adam Gase isn’t reading the press clippings about the third iteration of his Miami Dolphins. After two years in charge and an equal number of victories and defeats (16), the 2018 season figures to be Gase’s signature work.

“It’s never going to be the way we really want it, the way we keep talking about it [being] until guys take control of this thing. There are a lot of things I can do to make things the way we need, but at the end of this [it’s] on player accountability,” Gase said. “We need our leaders to step up. We need them to be vocal. We need them to actually do their part in the leadership role.”

That comment from the 2017 end-of-season press conference signaled signs of change in Miami. Henceforth, the Dolphins devised an off-season plan that would fly in the face of public approval.

Phase 1: Jettison players that don’t prioritize winning
Phase 2: Acquire players to reinforce coach’s message
Phase 3: Get much, much faster and athletic
Phase 4: Develop continuity within our own core principals

What are those core principles? That will be revealed later, but all good stories start at the beginning.

Phase 1: The Exodus

It began on Halloween 2017. Less than a year removed from a breakout 1,200-yard rushing performance, disgruntled running back Jay Ajayi was sent packing. The trade happened on a Tuesday, but Gase was already pouring the dirt over Ajayi’s grave Friday after a 40 point loss in Baltimore.

“We’ve got to stop trying to hit home runs all the time,” Gase said. “How about take the 4 or 5 yards that we’re going to get? 

As the Dolphins limped to a 6-10 record, trading a pro-bowl running back was just the beginning.

Wide receiver Jarvis Landry and his agent somehow instituted a reverse correlation in regards to his contract. Due to hit the market in March, a wide-out with a smaller yards-per-catch figure than a handful of tight ends and running backs was asking to be paid like a premiere receiver.

“Offensively, it’s a joke,” Gase said. “We’ve got too many guys that don’t want to take it home with them. Until our best players actually put forth some effort, it’ll be [expletive].”

Similarly, as it were with Ajayi, the writing was on the wall for Landry – he wasn’t coming back. After all, Gase’s offenses have excelled when there was a democratic ball distribution operation opposed to force-feeding a limited slot guy.

The biggest shoe was still yet to drop. That came when the Dolphins moved on from all-pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. There aren’t many disparaging remarks one can make about Suh’s on-field production – he was a stellar player in Miami.

Each team is given a finite amount of resources to construct its ideal team. Pennies are gold in this business and the decision to axe one proven player to free up cash for unknowns faced its fair share of criticism.

At this point national pundits were in lockstep on the utter disaster that has become a once proud organization. Despite a porous 6-10 mark and a clear roadmap to this eventual outcome, folks weren’t buying it.

Phase 2: Reinforcements

The decision to retain and prop-up quarterback Ryan Tannehill was made months ago. Watching 16 weeks of Jay Cutler, Matt Moore and David Fales will provide a sense of security in a previously proven quarterback.

If you’re not on the Tannehill train, this is where you exit. There’s a healthy contingency of detractors believing anything this team does is irrelevant because of current quarterback situation.

Oct 23, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) throws a pass during the first half against the Buffalo Bills at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

This column wasn’t written to convince you that Tannehill is a franchise quarterback; this blog has already accomplished that feat. Football minds far smarter than the author, or anyone reading this piece, have made that declaration.

Getting further into the weeds than I intended, no one is mistaking Tannehill for a top-shelf quarterback. Those players come along once for some teams, twice for the lucky and never for the damned.

The challenge Gase and the Dolphins’ brass would face was highlighting the strengths of the seventh-year quarterback. What does Ryan Tannehill do well?

– Accurate in the short/intermediate
– Lethal when afforded adequate time to throw the football
– Elite on play-action and throwing from outside of the pocket

A pair of obvious needs protrude from that list: 1.) Better offensive line play and, 2.) Quick, urgent options in the passing game.

The receiver portion would be a breeze – they grow on trees. Quality offensive line play is at an all-time low in the league and the Dolphins needed to augment 40% of the group. With Laremy Tunsil and Jesse Davis penciled in as quality pass-pro specialists at left tackle and right guard, the Dolphins decided to exercise the fifth-year option on PFF’s #4 pass protecting offensive tackle in Ja’Wuan James.

Next came free-agent Josh Sitton. A veteran with a polished resume and penchant for keeping his quarterback’s clean, Sitton is just what the doctor ordered.

Circle back to Gase’s public roasting of his own players, Mike Pouncey’s perpetual presence in the training room brought about an opportunity to complete this task. Pouncey, who played 16 games for the first time in his career since 2012, was deemed expendable because of his delicate practice availability.

Stepping in is Dan Kilgore who, with the 49ers, excelled in pass protection aside from the games quarterbacked by C.J. Beathard. The entire San Francisco line saw a regression from the mean when the rookie QB took over, and returned back to normalcy when Jimmy Garappolo took the reins.

On the outside, Danny Amendola made a career of fetching short passes from arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play, Tom Brady. Amendola’s playoff resume and third down prowess in an offense predicated on the short passing attack aids Miami in checking the box of priority number two of this phase.

The other addition at the position, as well as the offense in general, fits into phase three.

Phase 3: Speed Kills

Kiko Alonso, Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Landry and Julius Thomas – names not synonymous with speed. A lack of explosion on offense and a general futility against the opposition’s offensive playmakers indicated the need for a shot in the arm.

Enter Albert Wilson, Mike Gesicki, Jerome Baker and Kalen Ballage.

Wilson is a Landry clone as far as potential production (broke just one fewer tackle than Landry on 99 fewer pass targets). Under the hood, however, Wilson has a much more impressive zero-to-sixty engine.

The elevation of Jakeem Grant from punt returner and part-time gimmick option to full-fledged threat adds to the Dolphins’ element of speed. Sprinkle in Kenny Stills and the Dolphins have a trio of receivers that can blaze sub-4.4 on the stop watch.

A rookie tripod, Gesicki, Baker and Ballage, all measured near the top of list of athletic dynamos at Indianapolis’s combine.

The offense has lacked a critical element in the Adam Gase scheme, the tight end. Gesicki is THE quintessential move piece to serve as the Y-isolation cog in Gase’s offense.

Baker rejoins former Buckeye teammate, Raekwon McMillan, in the middle of a rejuvenated defense. Together, they wreak havoc as well-crafted blitzers and finding their spots in zone and man coverage.

Ballage serves as a plug-and-play option for the departed Damien Williams. A tall, slashing style runner with the ability to flex out and play slot makes the Arizona State product the ideal third-down back – his 4.46 forty-time doesn’t hurt either.

Phase 4: Building an Identity

Keep the quarterback upright, win one-on-one match-ups quickly and offer ultimate game-planning flexibility – the offense has its desired personality in spades. One that can attack the opponent in an entirely different way than the week prior.

A similar shift occurred on the defense. A first round draft pick was spent to bolster a secondary full of names on the come-up. Minkah Fitzpatrick allows the Miami defense to mirror the offense with flexibility. A deep safety and a big nickel, his presence allows pro-bowler Reshad Jones to ball hawk with more freedom.

Dec 11, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins free safety Reshad Jones (20) reacts during a game against the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The pass rush was bolstered in an off-season trade that brought Robert Quinn to Miami. William Hayes was re-signed and the Dolphins are now six deep on the edge with passable bodies.

The development of young talent from three consecutive draft classes will be paramount. Kenyan Drake, Laremy Tunsil, Jakeem Grant, Charles Harris, Raekwon McMillan, Xavien Howard, Cordrea Tankersley, Fitzpatrick, Gesicki, Baker and Ballage provide Miami with a rousing young core.

So now the process is complete, the roster is nearly set with 89 names ready to compete in August camp – but what is the plan? What is this team’s identity? First, let’s start with the off-season checklist:

Improve pass protection –

In: Josh Sitton, Dan Kilgore

Out: Ted Larsen, Mike Pouncey

Shift from a primary target to ball distribution offense –

In: Albert Wilson, Danny Amendola, Mike Gesicki, inclusion of Jakeem Grant

Out: Jarvis Landry, Julius Thomas

Improve red zone and third down defense –

In: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Raekwon McMillan, Robert Quinn, Jerome Baker,

Out: Ndamukong Suh, Lawrence Timmons

At the top of the column, I mentioned core principles we can expect to be instituted by the 2018 Miami Dolphins. Gase has come from a long line of successful coaches, primarily on the offensive side of the football. Picking up things along the way from each, his ideal offense would have two traits:

1.) No huddle/tempo-based attack
2.) Flexibility to attack defenses in a variety of ways

Tempo/No-huddle –

Ryan Tannehill is entering his third season in Gase’s offense – the lengthiest stay in any one offense during his seven-year career. Dan Kilgore is healthy and capable of practicing three days a week opposed to the hermetically sealed Mike Pouncey being freed from his bubble just once on Sundays.

Danny Amendola has forgotten more football than most people will even know. Albert Wilson was lauded in Kansas City for his ability to grasp Andy Reid’s complex, nuanced scheme. Plug in the tape of Mike Gesicki at Penn State and you will see the routes he’s going to run in this offense.

Frank Gore was acquired to make the transition to a hurry-up attack more seamless. Paired with third-year back Kenyan Drake (who led the NFL in rushing the final five weeks of the season) the Dolphins are flush with interchangeable backs to keep one another fresh.

The final point is best stated in the next core principle.

Practice How We Intend to Play –

Former offensive line coach and running game coordinator Chris Foerster’s decision making is fair to question. His idea that players ought to be cross trained along the offensive line is great in theory, but it has been the focal point for tantamount breakdowns in protection over the years.

Dec 17, 2017; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jesse Davis (77) at the line of scrimmage against the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

It contradicts the idea of competition, but the Dolphins have already anointed the starting five offensive linemen. Finding cohesion and rhythm will be a key for this attack, hence getting the front-five as many reps together as possible.

Furthermore, the Sitton, Amendola and Gore acquisitions put a literal captain and coach into each meeting room at the Dolphins’ facility in Davie. With those three, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, assignments will be communicated and supervised until they’re perfected.

The proof is already in the OTA-pudding as the Dolphins have been running up-tempo, fast-paced practices in May.

You play how you practice.

Defensive Scheme Changes –

Ranking dead last in third-and-long defense, and 30thin red-zone defense, the Dolphins needed to scrap an antiquated scheme and get with the times. Operating with almost no hint of the dime defense, and instead sticking with linebackers to cover athletic tight ends and backs, Matt Burke has one black mark on his resume.

But he can quickly quell those disparaging viewpoints by implementing the new talent on this defense. Fitzpatrick and the newly re-signed Bobby McCain give him flexibility at the slot, safety and perimeter positions. Removing Kiko Alonso from the equation and dropping an accomplished defensive back onto the field should pay immediate dividends.

The Eagles made a miraculous run to the city’s first Lombardi Trophy in 2017. An array of pass rushers that consistently pressure quarterbacks with a four-man rush, at any point of the game, was the key for that championship defense.

Miami is hoping to emulate that plan with veterans Cam Wake, Robert Quinn and Andre Branch. The lynchpin is second-year pro Charles Harris who flashed as a rookie, but was often a fraction of a second late getting to the quarterback.

Will all of this work? That remains to be seen and it’s why they play the games.

For it to work, the offense needs to click rather quickly. The schedule is advantageous at the beginning of the season with four home games in the sweltering South Florida Heat prior to Halloween. Operating an effective, efficient no-huddle scheme will put the visitor in a precarious position.

For it to work Tannehill has to stay healthy. The options behind him are an unattractive dearth of backups and journeymen.

For it to work the running game needs to find success. This team isn’t equipped to line up and run it downhill, but it can certainly take advantage favorable numbers the defense shows in the box. If the passing game works, the running game will work.

This Miami Dolphins team will pass to set up the run.

For it to work on defense, Minkah Fitzpatrick needs to be everything he’s portrayed as.

For it to work, Raekwon McMillan needs to be everything he’s portrayed as.

For it to work, Xavien Howard, Bobby McCain, Cordrea Tankersley, Charles Harris, Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor need to prove their flashes are a sign of things to come, not a fluky occurrence.

Where We Are Now –

The blueprint to operate a controlled passing game at an urgent pace has been laid forth. Complementing the offense is a faster defense with reinforcements added at all three levels. Depth in the secondary and on the line will encourage rotation and implementation of new schemes.

The concern is the process of acclimating so many new pieces. The no-huddle was scrapped before for its complexities derailed its overall effectiveness.

If the pieces don’t gel quickly, if the injury bug hits one or two key areas, it could all blow up.

Regardless of the results, the process all adds up. For the first time in a while, Miami has revealed a vision. Every move made coincides with that vision. It makes sense.

Will the vision come to fruition? September is right around the corner.

@WingfieldNFL

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